The "Movies" List: Gangsters



For more than a year now, I've doing a bit on The Chris Vernon Show ever-so-creatively dubbed "Movies" where I give five rental recommendations based on a topic presumably connected to one of the new releases in theaters. (Though more and more the lists are connected to some other topical idea I can muster — there are only so many superhero or robot movie lists one can come up with.)

I've been asked a lot to post the lists online somewhere, so I'm going to start trying to do so here each week after they've debuted on the show. Yesterday I did Gangster Movies based on Public Enemies. The list:

1. Angels with Dirty Faces (1938): To my mind the best of the many good James Cagney gangster flicks, in which Cagney and Pat O'Brien play old neighborhood pals who grow up in separate directions — one a gangster, the other a priest — and end up battling over the hearts, minds, and futures of a new generation of neighborhood kids. A young(ish) Humphrey Bogart is here in a small role. He and director Michael Curtiz would collaborate a few years later on a little thing called Casablanca.

2. Bonnie and Clyde (1967): Arthur Penn's classic version of the familiar lovers-as-gangsters story, with Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in the title roles and Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, Gene Wilder, and Michael J. Pollard headlining an awesome supporting cast. More graphic and heightened violence than was the norm for mainstream Hollywood at the time, but with the jaunty, mythic spirit of a folk ballad. Though a period piece, tapped into the counterculture and youth-culture sentiments of its day.

3. White Heat (1949): Raoul Walsh directs the classic later-period Cagney gangster movie. Cagney is Cody Jarrett, a psychotic gangster with severe mommy issues. The movie leaps among exciting heist and escape scenes en route to its famous immolation finale. Apparently a Kevin Garnett fave.

4. Menace II Society (1993): A different kind of gangster movie: African-American teens in post-Reagan Watts. There was a spate of black-oriented street-gang/drug-crime movies around this time (Colors, Boyz in the Hood, New Jack City, etc.) somewhat similar to the boom of gangster movies in the 1930s. This was the best of the bunch, labeling the Hughes Brothers as potentially major filmmakers, a title they never lived up to. Sensationalized, sure. But most gangster moves are.

5. Scarface (1932): Not that unintentionally funny, overheated Al Pacino/Brian DePalma version. The original, directed by Howard Hawks, produced by Howard Hughes, based on the life of Al Capone. Starring Paul Muni as gangster Tony Camonte working his way up the crime ladder in the midst of a gang war. George Raft in his classic menacing turn where he's flipping a coin in his hand the whole time. According to legend, Capone liked it so much he owned a print.

Honorable Mention: The Roaring Twenties (1939): I really wanted to put this on the list, but didn't think I could justify three Cagneys. Here Cagney and Bogart meet in WWI and then rise through the ranks of the gang war together. Nobody had better movie deaths than Cagney, and all three of the selections here end with classics. Here's the Roaring Twenties version:


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